Consumers can’t sort out seven different types of plastics, obviously, so the industry decided curb-side collection of all (co-mingled) plastic was the best option. Get it to recycling facilities and let them sort it out. That, however, is also a problem. Manual sorting is costly and extremely inefficient. Valuable plastic materials are made less so by contamination, which makes most of the PET and HDPE unrecyclable for use in new products.
New technologies that can take co-mingled plastics and chemically recycle them are starting to offer solutions. Richard Daley, Managing Director of ReNew ELP, spoke at the conference, and said that his company “is in the final stages of development on the first of four chemical recycling processing lines, with each line processing 20,000 tonnes a year, writes Chiarotti. "Its Cat-HTR technology utilises what Daley described as a unique hydrothermal upgrading process, using supercritical water to break down plastics into reusable, valuable chemicals and oils."
The target feedstock for processing via the Cat-HTR technology is the “residual plastic after mechanical recycling has taken place, such as flexible, multi-layer films,” said Chiarotti. “ReNew ELP sees itself as complementary to the mechanical recycling process.”
ICIS Senior Editor, Recycling, Mark Victory, pointed out the issues surrounding chemical recycling technology at the conference. “Chemical recovery is better, in theory, but there are issues with cost and yield. There are still the same challenges of collection, and it will be five to 10 years—an optimistic estimate—before we see large scale chemical recovery,” Chiarotti reports.
Victory identified another hurdle, according to Chiarotti, in that collection is simply not big enough. He said local authorities, where most responsibility for household waste collection lies, have been underfunded since the global economic downturn more than a decade ago, and investment in infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing complexity of packaging as a result. And that domestic issue is further exacerbated by China’s decision to stop taking waste plastics from the rest of the world.”
I would say that the curb-side collection method is too big and creating problems that cities—especially smaller cities—can’t deal with, such as the soaring cost, resulting in little to no return on investment. Many have drastically reduced or completely eliminated curb-side collection programs. That has brought on the ire of citizens who want to be “green” but who, ultimately, don’t understand proper recycling and how that inhibits recycling rates.
Chiarotti quoted Victory: “Investment in waste collection hasn’t kept pace with the increasing complexity of packaging and since China stopped accepting waste, there’s more contamination in our domestic recycling. Wastage rates have increased, because China used to take the lower quality waste material, which it could use in industries such as textiles, but is now being incorporated into domestic bales. The scale of demand and size of the undersupply is also [resulting in] material having to be produced at maximum capacity and stretched further, which also has an impact on contamination levels. In recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), for example, we’ve seen wastage rates increase from 25% in 2009 to 30 to 35% currently.”
However, time is of the essence to figure this out. “What the industry urgently needs is project teams to work out how to produce more sustainable products and better recycling collection and processing facilities,” said Hodges, according to Chiarotti. “We've got 18 months to work this out,” he warned, “because if we don't do it, brand owners are going to say, ‘Look, we've made a commitment to consumers to have done this by 2025. You're not moving. So, we're going to have to do something else.’ We have six years to work this out—and we don’t know what to do.’”